Honey, we need to talk. Those may be the most dreadful words a man ever hears from his wife. When couples seek counseling they usually have plenty to talk about. However, counselors are trained to look beyond those things that people complain about to try and identify the underlying problem. There is good reason to assume that no matter what the presenting problem may be, communication is at the root. Couples who learn to communicate well will have an easier time handling complicated issues, less frequent “explosions,” and a more satisfying relationship.
Below is a list of “ground rules” for marital communication. Following these simple guidelines will give you an immediate boost in the effectiveness of your marital communication. I invite you to look through the list and think honestly about which ones you may need to address. If something doesn’t make sense feel free to post a question in the comments.
- Eliminate the use of the words never and always. This leads to black and white thinking, defensiveness, and your spouse will usually be able to find an exception.
- Stop blaming and shaming. When did blame shifting begin? It really began in the Garden of Eden with Adam when he said, “that woman made me do it.” Sound familiar? Often we pour our energy into finding ways to blame our spouse rather than simply taking responsibility for our own actions.
- Don’t name call or label. Name calling is demeaning and in no way adds value to your spouse; therefore it is to be avoided. Labeling is equally as dangerous but less obvious. Have you ever referred to your spouse as lazy? Dull? Moody? If you have then you labeled them. This label can act as a filter through which you interpret all of your spouse’s words and actions. Eliminate the labels.
- Learn to use “I feel” statements rather than “you” statements. This certainly deserves a separate post. When you speak to your spouse and the first word out of your mouth is “you” then you have already activated your spouse’s defenses. They will not receive what you are going to say because they are preparing to defend themselves. However, if you begin your conversation with the words, “I feel ____” then you let them know you are communicating rather than attacking.
- Learn the difference between being hurt, frustrated, or annoyed rather than angry. Has anything good ever happened to you because you were angry? For most people the answer is “no.” Again, this has to do with defensiveness. If you approach your spouse angrily then their defenses immediately go up. However, if you can let them know that you feel hurt, irritated, or rejected then you leave the door open for further communication.
- Don’t withdraw or isolate but do take a time out if you become so angry that you lose control. This sounds like a contradiction. It’s not. John Gottman identified stonewalling (withdrawing) as one of the “four horsemen” of marital communication. Sometimes we withdraw physically by leaving the room. Other times we withdraw mentally and our spouse will watch as our eyes glaze over and we mentally transport ourselves to another place. Both are equally destructive. However, a time-out is different than withdrawing or stonewalling in at least three ways. First, it is time limited. You say to your spouse, “I’m losing control of my emotions so I’m going outside for 10 minutes and then I will come back and we will finish this conversation. Second, your spouse knows that you are coming back. Third, they will understand that you desire to finish the conversation once you are in a better frame of mind.
- Learn to listen. In order to listen effectively you must first clear your mind of all other distractions including what you intend to say in response to the other person.
- Don’t demand things from your spouse; rather ask them. Demands activate defensiveness (are you noticing a trend here) whereas requests do not. Say, “would you mind taking out the garbage?” instead of “take out the garbage.” Simple, but effective.
- Learn to be affirming. This too is worthy of a separate post. Affirmation is hard. We tend to focus on the things that bother us and therefore those things become the subject of our conversation. Ideally you should offer eight affirmations to your spouse for every one criticism or complaint. Want to do something that can immediately transform your marriage? Starting today, make it your personal goal to say at least five affirming things to your spouse every day. Try it, you’ll be amazed.
- Don’t ever use the “D” word. Don’t do it! Don’t even think it! Then it won’t be an option.
- Don’t ever tell your spouse, “you broke a rule!” Please don’t use this list or any other marital advice as a weapon against your spouse. If you can’t follow this rule I have openings on Tuesday!
There you have it; Eleven ways that you can begin to transform your marital communication. How about you? What ideas have you found to be helpful in your own marriage?